Apprenticeships key to social mobility

By Neil Bates, Managing Director – Seetec Outsource

As the economy continues to recover from the damage done by Covid-19 and life increasingly returns to some sense of normality, this Autumn could prove to be pivotal in setting a clear route to ‘levelling up’ regions beyond London and the South East. And front and centre of these plans should be levelling up access to opportunities, particularly around employment and training.

There are several key big decision-making points on the horizon. The Government’s forthcoming Levelling Up White Paper and ‘Sector Visions’ strategies could have a profound impact on access to opportunities, and its place in helping to ‘Build Back Better’ across the regions. And the Comprehensive Spending Review will set out medium-term Government spending as the economy recovers from the ravages of Covid-19.

And there is one area that is clearly in need of attention if the UK is serious about ‘levelling up’ across regions and sectors: apprenticeships and training. The Government has undertaken some new initiatives this year, such as a £1.3 million pilot targeting people who are harder to reach, using new technologies to support out-of-work people to find new job opportunities which are best suited to their skills and experience.

The Government is also implementing targeted improvements at particular sectors, such as the creation of new flexible apprenticeships, enabling people to work for a number of different employers in sectors which have more flexible working patterns. Employer incentives for hiring new apprentices were also doubled to £3,000, although this comes to an end in late September.

Addressing the disadvantage gap

However, much more still needs to be done to close the disadvantage gap. There has been a steady decline in apprenticeship participation since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy in 2017, with a particularly acute decline at intermediate level, the first rung on the apprenticeship ladder. Overall apprenticeships starts fell by 6.9% to 253,100 between 2019/20 and 2020/21. Even more worryingly, last year the Social Mobility Commission found that the number of apprenticeship starts among young people with a disadvantaged background fell by 36%, compared to just 23% for apprentices from more advantaged communities.

There are several reasons for this. Firstly, many employers have chosen to use apprenticeship levy funds to invest in higher-level apprenticeships for existing employees, with a big increase in leadership and management apprenticeships. Only 31% of apprenticeship starts were at intermediate level in 2019/20, down from 65% in 2013/14.

The low value of the funding bands allocated to most intermediate apprenticeships also has an impact. Apprentices at these levels are more likely to need additional support to achieve functional skills qualifications and transition into the workplace from school or college. However, inadequate funding makes it difficult for providers to deliver a quality experience.

Many potential candidates also struggle to meet increasingly high expectations at the recruitment stage, with requirements for GCSEs in maths and English often disqualifying those who lack academic qualifications.

Driving social mobility through apprenticeships

The pandemic has exacerbated some of the failings of the apprenticeships system, and we are now facing an employment landscape that threatens to widen the disadvantage gap and aggravate regional inequalities. Yet apprenticeships can work as a motor for social mobility, whilst accelerating business capability and output.

Global freight forwarding and supply chain specialist Woodland Group is a great example of an organisation that is bucking the trend and demonstrating the clear benefits of apprenticeships.

Woodland Group employs over three times as many apprentices as it did 18 months ago and is set to achieve a ten-fold increase in the next two years. Their inclusive approach to recruitment involves no minimum entry requirements for apprenticeships, preferring instead to review applications based on suitability to the role. Vacancies are promoted and accessible to people of all backgrounds, and learners are supported to achieve functional skills qualifications, with ongoing investment in workforce learning and development.

Furthermore, new freight forwarding apprenticeships have enabled the business to address the skills gap it was facing as a result of Brexit and the introduction of additional customs requirements. They are also planning to tackle the industry shortage of qualified Class 1 HGV drivers by growing their own talent pipeline through the updated LGV Driver apprenticeship standard.

Fuelling the Levelling Up agenda through skills opportunities

Examples such as this show the power of apprenticeships in delivering social and economic improvement. Apprenticeship support should be central to the Government’s Levelling Up White Paper, given that it aims to improve living standards, grow the private sector and increase and spread opportunity. For example, the Government should include a specific commitment to increase the scope of Combined Authorities to deliver targeted skills opportunities with employers, to meet regional sector employment needs.

Amidst intra-Government discussions about belt-tightening for the Comprehensive Spending Review, the Government should not lose sight of the need for a multi-year funding plan to deliver parity between formal and technical education. The levelling up agenda will fail to take off if it is not fuelled by skills opportunities to boost the life chances of poorer communities.

For example, to help young people from poorer backgrounds learn the basic skills needed to achieve their life ambitions, there should be greater investment in community-led social mobility initiatives allowing them to access early opportunities programmes. There should also be greater employer-specific support on a regional level, to help areas where the workforce is drawn from deprived communities to reskill and advance in their careers.

Learners in the manufacturing and engineering sectors have been hit hardest by the pandemic due to the amount of on-the-job-training that has been missed. To support them, the Government could offer an additional £500 per learner through apprenticeship providers, for catch-up and pre-apprenticeship learning. The Government could also temporarily extend the lifetime of apprenticeship levy funds from 24 to 36 months, so employers that cannot invest right now can wait until demand picks up.

Thought also needs to be given to ensuring employers are incentivised to take on new apprentices. For example, the Government should re-establish the £3000 incentive scheme for employers. This could be better targeted at the sectors hit hardest by the pandemic, such as aviation, transport and logistics, and at young people aged 16-24 who have seen their opportunities suffer due to Covid.

As some sectors like aviation and aerospace are clustered around particular regions, this has the added bonus of helping to level up opportunities for training and employment in these areas, helping to drive economic growth through a skills-led recovery that helps the UK ‘Build Back Better’ beyond 2022.

If the Government gets training and apprenticeship support right, this could be the most important part of an inclusive recovery that captures the regions, sectors and people that need the most help as we head cautiously towards a post-COVID future.